2 JUNE 2015
Anniversaries are usually a time for celebration. And today we mark all of the good that UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] has done over the past 65 years. I was very much moved hearing Mr. [Mohamed] Al Karshan and Ms. [Lina] Meri for the plight and challenges they are enduring, suffering because of our lack of support and war in the region. That is why we are here sitting together to accelerate our support for them.
We are sitting here with the heaviest of hearts. We do so knowing that we should not have had to mark the sixty-fifth anniversary of UNRWA because UNRWA was never meant to exist for this long. It exists because of political failure. In the absence of a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees, UNRWA has become more than an Agency. It is a lifeline.
Many partners have worked to help Palestine refugees live better lives. I would like to pay special tribute to UNRWA’s 30,000 dedicated staff, most of them Palestine refugees themselves. Far too many have lost their lives in the course of serving others. On my last visit to Gaza, I laid a wreath in memory of those UNRWA staff who were killed during the terrible fighting last summer. Please join me in once again remembering them and all other innocent victims.
Education is the foundation of a better future and UNRWA has led the way. UNRWA education emphasizes UN values and human rights. It promotes a culture of learning and resilience. It is no wonder that studies have shown that UNRWA students in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan learn more and score higher than students in public schools.
The transition from education to work remains an enormous challenge for Palestine refugee youth. We need look no further than Gaza. Gaza today is the home of the highest unemployment in the world. More than 60 per cent of young people are unemployed and it is higher still for young women. In Gaza, as anywhere else in the world, joblessness means hopelessness. We simply must do more to address this challenge.
UNRWA’s health centres and medical staff are helping Palestine refugees live healthier lives. We have seen significant improvements, notably in maternal and child health. Yet life opportunities for Palestine refugees continue to be made immeasurably more difficult by blockade, bombings, siege, closures and upheaval.
Last summer’s conflict in Gaza caused massive loss of life, including the deaths of hundreds of children, and devastated homes, schools, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure. Some damaged homes have been repaired. But 9,000 Palestine refugee dwellings were destroyed in the fighting. Not one has been rebuilt.
I urge the parties to finalize the necessary arrangements for the reconstruction of destroyed homes, as well as residential construction more broadly. The temporary Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism will not be fully effective without stronger ceasefire arrangements and genuine intra-Palestinian reconciliation.
We know where failure to address these and other issues will lead. We have seen it time and again. Gaza is a powder keg — mounting frustration and anger will surely light the fuse. Action is needed now.
The war in Syria has pummelled the Palestine refugee community. One of the most searing photographs from that war showed an endless sea of humanity in the Yarmouk camp desperately seeking food in a world of rubble. The picture looked like an image from another era. Yet it was last year.
Today, the situation in Yarmouk is even worse. Invaded by Daesh, and surrounded and strangled by Government forces, civilians in Yarmouk have nowhere to run. Meanwhile, UNRWA continues to bring life-saving assistance to those displaced — and made refugees yet again — in neighbouring areas. All concerned have an obligation to preserve the Yarmouk camp from further violence and to allow assistance to reach those in need.
Palestine refugees in Lebanon and Jordan also suffer from poverty and lack of opportunity. Nearly 60,000 vulnerable Palestine refugees from Syria have fled to Lebanon and Jordan, putting pressure on host communities — which themselves need greater support — and requiring emergency assistance from UNRWA. In the West Bank, the lives of Palestine refugees are constrained by occupation, with poverty and deprivation overflowing in overcrowded camps.
The needs of the Palestine refugee community continue to grow, dwarfing the resources available to UNRWA. This gap is compounded by deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in the region. The result is deepening pain and vulnerability for Palestine refugees. Some are resorting to desperate measures, putting their lives in the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers, in a perilous attempt to reach Europe by sea.
I have painted a bleak picture. Yet without UNRWA’s vital support and protection to the Palestine refugee community over the last 65 years, the situation would be far worse. At a time of turmoil in the region, UNRWA remains a vital stabilizing factor.
So I repeat my call to the leaders of Israel, Palestine and all parties with influence: resume meaningful negotiations without further delay, and put an end to unilateral actions that erode trust.
At the same time, the political failure must not lead to a humanitarian — and indeed, moral — failure. We must continue to provide all humanitarian and diplomatic support to Palestine refugees. They deserve their human rights and to live lives of dignity and opportunity. The Palestine refugee community needs the world’s full solidarity at this troubled time. We must not abandon them.
Finally, I would like to recognize Hanan Ashrawi, Special Representative of President Mahmoud Abbas of the State of Palestine. You can count on us, the United Nations and the international community. You are seeing the solidarity of the international community. I wish you all the best. I hope you will convey to President Abbas what we have resolved today.
Thank you very much. Shukran.
For information media. Not an official record.